Personal Tech Ethics Audit

Inspired by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee's Technology Policy, I've been advocating for groups that I'm involved with to take stock of their technology choices and how they work in alignment with - or against - the groups' stated values. But it recently occurred to me that I could do the same thing, as a valuable personal exercise and a practice run for how groups can do the same.

My first step was to consider how well the principles used by the IWOC fit for my personal framework. For the most part I agree with their assessment and their value criteria. It's not so simple as applying their example point-for-point, though. An organization in some ways has more latitude to take an aggressive, principled stance and make commitments to improve these conditions over time. Indeed, I believe that the ends can't be made to justify the means, but that the means must reflect the desired ends, and that this becomes more important at greater scales of organization. At the personal level we have to acknowledge our limitations in skills, resources (including time), etc. I believe when it's possible, it's good to "vote with our dollars," but I also believe voting is just one small tool out of many in the fight for collective liberation. These problems are too large and complex to be solved by individually opting out of things like Facebook or Google Search. At the same time, when we learn something new, we can do it for others or teach them! So, for me, it seems worthwhile to pursue these goals up to a poorly-defined point, provided that I can share my findings or otherwise help others along the path.

So, I've tried to catalog my personal "tech stack" - apps, devices, and services that I use regularly. I've drawn the line pretty closely around computing; while there are some obvious opportunities for improvement as an ethical consumer in other areas of my life, without limiting the scope it's simply too big a task.

Then I started work on a "detailed evaluation" of those list items, like IWOC has on their website. I quickly discovered that evaluating each item on my list against their criteria was beyond my expertise and the time I wanted to devote to this project before taking some real action. I also noticed that internally I was evaluating a very important additional criteria that I hadn't considered up front: whether I had a reasonably actionable choice in whether to continue using that service (Gmail) or not (Discord).

As a result, I've decided instead to make a smaller list of services and devices I can reasonably replace, reduce, or remove my usage in the near to medium term. That list is below. I'm not sure if or when I'll update this post, but I do want to put my thinking and intentions out in the world for accountability and the sake of sharing knowledge. The larger, less-detailed list is included at the bottom of the post - I'm interested to hear feedback or suggestions on nearly any of those items, and happy to answer questions too!

The potentially actionable list #

  • Google Drive
    • My NextCloud server is broken, but when it's fixed and running again, it will meet all my personal needs for Google Drive. I can even try to use it for some collaborative use-cases - it could be a way to start conversations about tech ethics and related issues, or invite folks to start making some better choices of their own.
  • Apple iPhone
    • This also depends on fixing the NextCloud server; I won't be ready to get out of the iOS ecosystem until I've exfiltrated my roughly 15,000 (and growing!) iCloud photos into NextCloud.
  • Gmail
    • I have ~3-4 active Gmail accounts, and a handful of less-active ones. Of the active ones, one is well along the path of being phased out, and another I hope to move to once they support custom domains. The rest I have no choice but to leave with Google.
  • DigitalOcean
    • The main concern here is cost. To move just my static ongoing VPS usage to would triple my monthly bill. Some options are even more expensive, and others like Electric Embers or MayFirst might work but it's not immediately clear what resources I'd get, or what the price would be. It seems that co-op or "ethical" hosting is pretty competitively priced for shared hosting like a modest Wordpress server, but less competitive for larger needs or dedicated VPS. I'm going to look into this one more closely in 2021.
  • Facebook
  • GitHub
    • I will probably stand up a Gitea instance at a subdomain of this url for hosting my personal code/projects; it's difficult to fully divest from GitHub as a freelancer and occasional open-source contributor. Work-related needs (both finding and completing client work) are a roadblock for many of these items, but changing that is a long-term project.

My Personal Tech Stack #

This list is in no particular order and is not comprehensive. I've put a * next to bits that are Free Software, Open Source, or otherwise ethical enough for my current use, and a + for items that aren't, but are non-negotiable currently.

  • NextCloud*
  • Google Drive
  • Gmail
  • Protonmail*
  • DigitalOcean
  • vim & vimwiki*
  • 1Password+
  • Apple iPhone (+ cloud storage)
  • Spotify
  • Mastodon*
  • Discord+
  • Firefox*
  • Harvest+
  • Sentry+
  • GitHub
  • GitLab+
  • LinkedIn+
  • GoatCounter*

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